One of the things I was utterly certain about when my daughter was born was that she wouldn’t be spoilt by a plethora of material possessions. I was slightly horrified at some of the clothes, equipment and toys which fellow parents seemed to consider essential for a tiny baby. It helped that we lived in a fairly small two bedroomed house at the time, so there wasn’t an awful lot of room for baby walkers, activity centres and the like. We were also on a strict budget as I was hoping that I would be able to stay at home with Anna after my maternity leave finished, and so we were saving my maternity pay and living on my husband’s salary to see if we would be able to get by.
I threw myself into the baby on a budget mentality and enjoyed making rattles out of dried pulses in old water bottles, a sensory box out of bits and pieces we had lying around, and our local Children’s Centre and libraries were fantastic for free baby/toddler activities. Of course, as an adored first grandchild on both sides of the family, not to mention the fact that we were the first of our various friendship groups to have a baby so there was huge novelty value, Anna was also indulged with plenty of cute outfits and toys which didn’t come via my kitchen cupboards, but the indulgence felt manageable.
We continued with this philosophy through the toddler and pre-school years, and it seemed to work really well. Books were a bit of an exception, but as I’ve never been able to resist buying books for myself, it wasn’t likely I’d be able to control my bibliomania around all the gorgeous picture books we came across. And the full box set of Famous Five books might not have been an essential purchase for a not-yet-two-year-old, but it was clearly an investment. Luckily Anna enjoys being read to as much as we enjoy reading to her, so her extensive book collection is at least well used. Some women justify clothes purchases on a cost-per-wear basis; on a cost-per-read basis then most of Anna’s books were free.
The cracks started to appear at her 4th birthday party. She had a joint party with her best friend from nursery, and between them they amassed a fairly long guest list. All these children bought Anna a present, and so suddenly she had twenty presents, not including what she’d already been bought by family members. They were entirely appropriate, thoughtfully chosen books, craft sets, games, stickers and the like, but there were an awful lot of them. Far more than one four year old girl could take in or play with in one go. I sequestered some of them away, to be brought out on rainy days or bored moments in school holidays.
This worked up to a point, but we were still working our way through them when the tsunami of 5th birthday presents hit. Anna’s 5th birthday was, I am adamant, the biggest party she is going to have until her 18th. Wanting to do everything possible to facilitate her settling well into school and making friends, we gave her complete free reign with the invitations, and so ended up with nearly thirty guests. All of whom, of course, brought presents. Many of which are still untouched in their boxes.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re lovely toys, and I feel guilty pangs every time I think about them languishing unused. But actually, with school taking up so much time, and often leaving Anna so tired that the only thing she really wants to do is cuddle up for some stories, there are only so many hours in the day. And at weekends and holidays, we love to make the most of the fabulous city we live in and go out and about to museums, parks, galleries or cafes, or to visit family and friends. When she is at home, Anna’s preferences are pretty clear. She loves imaginary play – mostly with the Peppa Pig characters or Octonauts set which were her main presents from us two successive Christmases – but also popular are her play kitchen (largely made by me out of painted cardboard boxes), her shop till and her doctors kit, and she loves being read to, or sitting looking through her books by herself, or baking with me. When friends come round they seem to have the most fun either taking all the bedding from all the beds and piling it up in the spare room to make a den or, alternatively, piling up all the sofa cushions in the middle of the living room to make an avalanche. Very recently she has been more interested in arty things, and has spent ages with colouring books or nagging me to get her painting things out. (Tip: Whatever Mr Maker says, splatter painting is a) hopelessly, ridiculously, ohmygod-call-the-decorators messy, and b) doesn’t produce anything except sludge coloured sopping wet paper. DO NOT try it at home).
And then a couple of weeks ago:
“Mummy, I wish I had some real dressing up costumes.”
“How do you mean, real?”
“You know, proper ones. From a shop. Not just lots of old clothes.”
Now, Anna has always loved her dressing up box, started for her by my sister-in-law, and combining a mixture of clothes, bags, scarves, jewellery, masks, and one or two commercial costumes. Closer questioning revealed that it was a friend from school on a play date who had asked where all the real (for real, read ‘from the Disney Store) costumes were, and it had set Anna thinking. It is, I think, the first time she has ever spontaneously asked for a toy. Previously she’s come up with Iists for Father Christmas, or gazed wistfully at things in toy shops, remarking on how much she likes a certain thing, hint, hint, and she’s even announced what she will be saving up her pocket money for, but she has never nagged or whinged or begged for things. I know this will be the first exertion of peer pressure amongst many, and I don’t quite know where to go with it.
On the one hand, I want to maintain our relatively non-materialistic approach. I don’t want a six year old cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I don’t want the cupboards stuffed with yet more stuff she has no time or inclination to play with. I want to continue to carefully choose the toys and books which I believe will stimulate her imagination and creativity. But…equally, I don’t want Anna to be the laughing stock of the playground because she doesn’t have the ‘right’ toys or clothes or games. And whereas I’m not going to bankrupt us or run up enormous credit card bills to clear Hamley’s out of stock, we are in the fortunate position of having a little more disposable income than we did a few years ago, and I’m more than happy to use it to indulge my own Cath Kidston passion on occasion, so why not treat Anna a little more too? And, for heaven’s sake, a couple of dressing up costumes, it’s hardly like I’m buying her personalised diamond studded hair clips from Tiffany’s,
So far I have compromised. Her Halloween costume was a witch outfit, costing the grand total of £7 from Sainsbury’s. And in terms of sheer pleasure it’s given her, it must be one of the best £7 I’ve ever spent. Not only did she wear it, after trying on, the entire evening I bought it – including dragging my (not unwilling) husband out for a twilit walk because ‘this is the time of night witches like to prowl’, she wore it to her friend’s Halloween party on Friday, and then nonstop all weekend. She played ‘witch school’ – an imaginary game of her own invention, based fairly heavily on Jill Murphy’s ‘Worst Witch’ books every moment she wasn’t either out or asleep. I did manage to get the costume off and pyjamas on at bedtime, but it would be back on (rather incongruously over pink rabbit print pyjamas) by the time she came into our room of a morning. She just loves it.
And I don’t know if this is a vindication of our approach to date – we haven’t over-indulged her, so she is capable of appreciating a fairly modest treat, or if it’s an indication I should lighten up a little bit and accept that we are indeed living in a material world, and nothing I can do will really change that, and perhaps it isn’t such a big deal anyway.